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'Open source' savings boost laptops project

Birmingham gained an extra 100 laptops for its teachers by using Star Office software, writes George Cole

More and more schools will be opting to use open source software over the next few years, predicts IT company Sun Microsystems. Open source software (OSS) is so-called because there's no licence fee to pay, it works on different operating systems (such as Windows and Linux) and users are free to adapt or modify the software code.

Sun is the company behind Star Office, a software suite that includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package. Sun offers Star Office to all educational institutions (from nursery schools to universities) for free.

"Strictly speaking, Star Office is not completely open source (it has a few proprietary features), but the lack of a licence fee and its ability to run on different computer systems makes it very appealing," says David Stephenson, Sun's business development manager.

Malcolm Herbert, business development manager of IT company Red Hat, says the cost benefits of opting for open source software are hard for schools to ignore: "You don't have to pay for support, you don't have to upgrade and there's no annual charge."

It was economics that prompted Birmingham education authority to put Star Office on to all the laptop computers it offers teachers under the Laptops for Teachers scheme. Birmingham will provide almost 3,000 laptops to teachers over the lifetime of the scheme.

Chris Mitton, a senior ICT consultant with Birmingham, says: "We did the sums and found that if we chose Star Office rather than Microsoft Office, a further 100-odd teachers could benefit from the scheme. We tried Star Office and found it was largely compatible with Windows and it has 99 per cent of the features users want and use. Anything that reduces the cost of ownership and offers best value has got to be good."

However, Mitton adds that there are no plans to move from the Windows operating system to an open source system, and Birmingham still uses Microsoft software for many other applications. Mitton says: "We don't want to offer open source software simply because it's free, but we do when it offers real benefits."

But with even the UK government saying it will now consider OSS solutions, alongside proprietary ones, in IT procurements, and that it will only use products that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments, open source software could soon become a familiar sight on many more school computers and systems.


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